Tag Archives: Realism

Companions

I have a couple not-really-related things for this week. It’s inelegant, but I’m sure we’ll cope.

First, although things have been a little Doctor Who heavy of late, I’m going there again; Orphan Black hasn’t thrilled me so far and I am not the right person to write about Handmaid’s Tale. The series just wrapped up giving us our next-to-last Capaldi story and (one assumes) the last to feature a companion who we really just met, Bill Potts.

The story with Bill’s exit was, I thought, pretty darned well done. The original flavour Cybermen were back and were genuinely disturbing. (Vastly superior to their newer reimaginings, but maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog) We finally had a story with more than one incarnation of the Master in it, and it went exactly as it should, with the Masters stabbing each other in the back. I’m not sure the resolution really made a great deal of sense if you really think about it, but it’s not hard SF and you probably just shouldn’t.

Bill herself, though, went through quite the ordeal. First shot through the chest, then isolated from the Doctor for like ten years in a creepy alien hospital, then betrayed by the one friend she thought she had and horrifically transformed into a Cyberman. Oh, and then she died. There’s been some criticism of this (probably not unjustifiably so) because we had a lesbian POC character and she meets a grisly end; this seems to fit into the ‘Kill Your Gays’ trope that many writers are criticized for.

I’m not the right person to write about that either, and I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes that Bill’s consciousness survives, apparently off to explore the universe with the mind of her girlfriend from the series premiere. However that may be, the whole thing is in line with the exits of recent Doctor Who companions, who have of late ended their journeys in spectacular fashion. Clara died, or will, and the Doctor loses his memories of her. The Ponds are banished through time and stranded there. Donna gets her memories of her time with the Doctor wiped out. Rose gets sent to an alternate universe. Of revival-era companions, only Martha leaves on her own terms. Usually, the only way someone stops traveling with the Doctor is if there is some kind of traumatic, cataclysmic severing of the relationship.

It didn’t use to be this way. Ian and Barbara, the original companions, just decided they’d really like to go home. Liz Shaw got tired of being a sidekick and quit. Jo Grant decided to get married. Sarah Jane breaks the pattern a bit – the Doctor isn’t allowed to take her to Gallifrey – but then my favourite companion, Leela, starts it again. She leaves (also to get married, which is a bit ugh), and on Gallifrey, which is a great example of why you shouldn’t worry overmuch about Doctor Who continuity. On it goes: Nyssa leaves to help the sick on Terminus, Tegan just reaches a point where she can’t stand the terrors she has to face, Turlough just goes home.

Adric, of course, dies, but the point is this – it didn’t use to require a cataclysm for a companion to stop traveling with the Doctor. A lot of them just decided to do something else. As I thought about this, I wondered what the reason for the change could be, and I wonder if at least part of it has to do with how we, in the audience see things. We watch Doctor Who and think: ‘If I could travel with the Doctor, I’d never want to stop. Look how amazing!’ It’s fun and attractive to think about in the same way that a lot of fantastic scenarios are fun to think about: selling all your stuff and moving to a cabin in the woods, or an RV, joining the merchant marine, whatever. I wonder if, at least a little, the writers of the current show are putting that essentially fan-born mindset into the characters they’re creating, so that they also can’t imagine wanting to stop wandering around in the TARDIS.

I’m not sure if the older series did a better job conveying the down side of being, essentially, space vagrants, if this is a consequence of the revival show having a (generally? arguably?) lighter tone or (I think inarguably) deifying the Doctor more, or what the reason may be, but it interests me as a fan and it interests me as a writer.

As a writer, the main thing is that as much as we often need our characters to go on perilous, exciting adventures and do nerve-wracking things (that kind of thrilling, escapist experience being a big part of what fiction is for), I think it’s also important to show some of the difficulties with these things. It’s not all a fantastic adventure; it’s difficult to leave the comfortable and familiar to go do something dangerous, and most people can only take so much tension and alarm before they simply can’t do it anymore, as happened with Tegan. People also often just decide that they’re ready to Stop Doing A Thing now, no matter how much they loved the thing to begin with. Time to move on. I think that’s a useful lesson too.

Obviously different types of stories and genres will look at these issues to different extents and get into them more or less, but I think it makes things feel much more genuine if it’s at least a minor part of the story. Even The Hobbit, which is basically a lighthearted fantasy tale, has Bilbo fret about leaving home a little bit. We think as fans that if Gandalf showed up on our doorstep we’d be all ‘yes please’, but in practice if someone turned up and said it was time to Go and Do A Thing Immediately, my guess is that most of us would have at least some trepidations, and probably be glad when it was over, and we could go back to the world we understood just a little bit better.

This is not to say that I think the original series handled things better, exactly, although I think it’s less than ideal if the new series continues to have companions only leave for horrifying and/or spectacular reasons. I will also be interested to see what the writers do with the Doctor’s reaction to Bill’s departure, because (based on what we saw) as far as he knows, there was no happy ending for Bill and she’s either dead or stuck forever as a Cyberman. This, for me, is the main problem with always having companions leave mostly dead, kind of dead, or permanently damaged – the Doctor is fundamentally a decent person, and so you’d think after a good run of these he would simply say ‘no, not doing this any more. Can’t justify it.’

In any case, I await the Christmas special with interest and for what little it’s worth I’m sorry to see both Capaldi and Pearl Mackie leave. This season really worked well and I would have enjoyed more stories with the both of them. (Also, again, Michelle Gomez’ Missy.)

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Ok, other thing real quick. This is not (I swear) going to turn into a running analogy, but I really can’t escape the conclusion that similar to how you need to warm up before serious exercise if it’s going to go as well as it can, I sort of need to warm up to writing as well. When I first sit down to write it goes very slowly. I write, like, a sentence. Then I urgently need to go Do Another Thing. I come back. I probably erase the sentence. I try it again. Another Thing calls again. This goes on, sometimes, for some length of time.

Then, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there is very nearly an audible thunk from the mind-gears and abruptly, we are in Writing Mode and things flow much more easily. The whole process is a bit mysterious to me and vastly annoying if I have, say, two hours to get some writing in and the thunk doesn’t happen until an hour of Another Thing, but this is how it goes.

This is a consistent pattern to the point that I don’t think I can put it down to mood, state of mind, or the current project. It’s apparently just how my brain works (or fails to) and I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom this is true. No doubt there is, out there, a psychologist or similar brain science person who knows exactly what processes are going on, or failing to go on, in this situation.

I don’t mention this because I have any particular answer or method for improvement, or really any insight derived from it. I mention it because for a long while I definitely added to my stress by worrying over this whole warming-up process, and that it meant I was doing something wrong or not adequately prepared or motivated or whatever. I don’t think it does. I think it just means that your process is your process, and as much as possible you need to just not worry about whether it’s right or correct and just sort of do what works, do what gets words on the page in the end.

When I write, I gotta warm up to it. This is how it is.

This is also fearsomely close to advice, so I’ll call it here.

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Realism

This week I’m going to go back to something I wrote a couple weeks ago, about the movie Excalibur and how a ‘realistic’ version of the Arthur story would not be anywhere near as good as the wondrously fantastic version we got. A little later, I was listening to a Big Finish audio drama and in the extra comments, Tom Baker said something I thought was pretty interesting. He said (paraphrasing slightly) that you can tell the difference between literature and the real world because literature is the place where you know that good will conquer evil, in the end. Not so much for the real world.

Obviously (and I have no doubt that Mr. Baker is perfectly well aware of that) this isn’t true of all literature; there are lots of stories that don’t end up very well and go to dark places. However, authors do (as he pointed out in the interview) have the ability to arrange things so that they work out well in the end. That isn’t the arrangement that always gets chosen, I guess, and tales where things do not work out well seem to be especially popular these days. A lot of the more successful movies, TV shows and books in recent years are either about fairly awful characters, end up in fairly awful ways, or both.

Just as obviously, there’s a reason why these stories are popular. At least part of it, I think, is that we have the idea that these kinds of things are realistic, and I suppose to some extent that’s true. The real world is riven with flaws and we are surrounded by flawed people a lot of the time. It probably is fairly realistic to create tales of flawed people in flawed places, then, and if you do that a lot of times those stories will end up with less than perfect conclusions.

I’m not sure what it is that makes us (sometimes) think that a ‘realistic’ story must be a better story, but a lot of the time, it seems, we do. Perhaps it makes us feel more mature or intelligent to be trading with ‘reality’ rather than the fantastic. Maybe we feel that realism is close to truth, and the truth is something we are often inclined to embrace, and told to embrace. We often like solving a puzzle, and maybe uncovering the ‘real story’ behind something like the King Arthur stories satisfies in that fashion. Perhaps we’re avoiding the charge of ‘escapism’, which is often used to dismiss things as a waste of time. Thus, perhaps, we choose something ‘realistic’.

However, these aren’t the kind of stories I really like, these days. Just as I like the profoundly unrealistic (and ultimately positive, or at least redemptive) Excalibur much more than I could ever imagine enjoying a gritty, realistic tale of a real 9th century warrior (somewhere out there, perhaps a writer just went ‘Challenge Accepted’ to themselves, and if so I hope you prove me wrong), I like stories that aren’t afraid to have fundamentally good characters in them (along, of course, with some gleefully horrible ones) and end up in situations where, on some level, ‘things are better’.

Perhaps that’s the kind of story Tom Baker digs as well – I like to imagine so, at least – and that’s where I am, as a reader and writer, these days. I’m not really terribly concerned with what could or would really happen; I like a story that, whatever kind of journey it takes you on, ends in a place where you can say, on some level, that ‘things were better’. Basically, I enjoy a story where there are the ‘good guys’ (or at least, good people) and, on some level, they succeed in the end. At something. It doesn’t have to be unproblematic success, or even entirely unproblematic characters; there’s certainly room (in my picky little mind) for some shades of grey (perhaps not fifty of them, though) as long as it isn’t unremittingly darkness.

I lost about any interest I might have had in the new Batman/Superman movie after it became apparent that the grimdarkness dial had been cranked up to 11. (Yes, of course you can have a positive Batman story) Part of the reason I have liked the new Flash series is that it is just plain fun to watch, and has such a basically decent main character. Several people on my Twitter feed pointed out how nice it is to see, in the pictures for the upcoming Supergirl series, to see a hero who is, of all things, smiling, rather than scowling angrily at the world.

Now, none of this is to say that I can’t appreciate a dark story. I can, and I think if you had asked me about what kind of stories I enjoyed more a few years ago, I would have answered differently. To pick a reasonably recent example, Snowpiercer was about the bleakest movie I can remember watching in a very long time, although it was also immensely well done and a film I enjoyed – I just had to do a little counter-bleak palate-cleanse afterwards (with, I believe, Pirates of the Caribbean). I’m not sure what it says about me that the stories that I like to read and am most interested in writing, these days, are not ‘realistic’ and tend to be more of the type where at the end, things are better. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe this too will change.

At the moment, though, I feel like I get quite enough examples of things working out for the worse and the right side coming out second-best in the real world and in my real life. When I spend some time with a story, I’m really in the mood for a happy ending. You can dismiss that as ‘escapism’, I suppose, but to me that’s something stories have always been for – taking us out of the real world for a little while.

Thanks for reading again; I hope your plot takes a happy turn today.

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